‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’
From 1968 to 2001, if you were the parent of young children and considered yourself fairly sophisticated, you viewed PBS’ “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” with some wincing. Yes, your children were transfixed, and yes, there were some charming, even touching moments, but it was so easy to make fun of the host. He was just plain corny and so old-fashioned. He talked slowly, he wore the kind of sweater your grandfather favored. And, if not actually effeminate, there was something about him that didn’t seem, well, manly. So if you had that opinion (I raise my hand) then you need to see this film and find out what was really going on during those shows. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister and moderate Republican who considered TV his pulpit, was doing something truly revolutionary: He was trying to make children feel safe in an unsafe world. Not just that, but he was letting them know it was okay to feel sad or disappointed or angry—that they were not alone. In answering questions in a gentle and thoughtful way he got down to their level, as it were, by offering low-key, pragmatic comfort. He thought the violence/superhero ethic of most children’s programming was harmful, not to mention that it all seemed to be in service of turning them into good little future consumers.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a documentary about the show, the man and the times. It is exemplary in explaining just who this Mr. Rogers was, warts and all. Friends like Susan Stamberg of NPR and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are interviewed and talk of him with warmth and wonder. Others, too—family, friends, psychologists, the curator of the Mr. Rogers museum—present a picture of an outwardly simple yet inwardly complex man; he’d been a fat child who was bullied and that little boy lived on in his tiger puppet, Daniel, a mainstay of the show. The film shows old clips of the shows and interviews. We also see parodies from that time that seemed so very funny back then and now just seem cruel. At the end, this “sophisticated” adult joined the audience in the theater in shedding a few tears. Not just for the man, but also for a more innocent time that, it seems, is lost forever.
After writing the above, shall I be predictable and say from the sublime to the ridiculous? No, not quite accurate because “Ocean’s 8” isn’t ridiculous. It’s mildly pleasant but it’s simply not exciting; for a caper film there is no tension. That’s none. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), having spent five years in jail plotting the perfect heist, gets released, meets with old cohorts (played by Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson) and gathers an all-female gang to enact her plan. Debbie has thought everything through—I mean, everything—so the heist is pulled off and the movie is over. The only minor moment of “uh-oh” is one concerning the clasp of a diamond necklace but it’s handled within two minutes, and all the ladies go merrily on their way.
So, a caper film with no tension. Check. But at least I got to see a bunch of actresses I like very much including Anne Hathaway utilizing her comic chops playing a narcissistic celebrity. I got to see amazing gowns. I got to see a fictional Met Gala and “ooh” and “ahh” over its sumptuousness. And I got to see some of the most amazing face-sculpting work ever on aging actresses. They look exquisite, like porcelain dolls; they also don’t look quite real anymore, but that’s the price women pay in American films. Is it fair? No. Is it reality anyway? You betcha.
This past Sunday’s New York Times had an opinion piece about how the trend of casting all women in films that used to be all male (“Ghostbusters,” the “Ocean’s” series) ignores the depth of the so-called female experience. Let’s just say that “Ocean’s 8” deals as much with the female experience as the all-male films do with the inner life of men. And let’s leave it at that.